Intentionally choosing to thrive in your current life is revolutionary. I say this because we (and our ancestors before us) live in a time and a society that often seems to be full of hate, fear, and distress. Living in this type of environment causes us to unintentionally get into “survival mode”- which puts limits and constraints on the potential and quality for our lives. When we live in a racist or otherwise oppressive society, it often means that we also live in constant fear and anxiety for our livelihood. We are encouraged to become smaller, different, or told to be less threatening. We then begin to internalize these messages from society, and even encourage our children and loved ones to live in fear, with anxiety, and with limitations.
This sick and limiting cycle is often the result of intergenerational experiences of racial trauma. If you have not read Dr. Joy DeGruy’s “Posttraumatic Slave Syndrome” or even just watched some of her YouTube clips on this phenomena, you should! Dr. DeGruy has done an excellent job at explaining and characterizing the exact effects that extreme racism and oppressive conditions have had on Black Americans. The unfortunate part is that these conditions persist, and so do the effects. Fortunately, many psychologists and other mental health professionals are finally catching on to the fact that racial trauma is real and needs further research and study.
Racial trauma can be understood as a subset of trauma, as it specifically addresses traumatic experiences that are related to race, racism, and race-related stressors. Therefore, racial trauma can be defined as racial experiences of real or perceived threat or danger. These experiences can be directly experienced or the witnessing of someone else’s experience. This can also be triggered by hearing about the racial experiences of others. These racial experiences often cause feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, fear of safety, and perceived shortening of life expectancy (i.e. “I may not make it to 25 years old.”). Racial trauma rarely involve a single event, and is more likely to be a culmination of racial experiences, resulting in insidious and chronic stress. These racial events include individual racist events, consequences of institutional racism, effects of cultural racism, daily microaggressions, and perceived racism.
It would be difficult to find any person of color who lives in America and has not experienced some sort of racism, or race-related stressor. Therefore, it is likely that many of us experience and are impacted by varying levels of racial trauma. Likewise, it is common to encounter individuals who have experienced other traumatic events at some point in their lives. More frightening is the idea that there are many people of color who experience racial trauma, in addition to other non-racial traumas. This means that there are even more disturbing consequences for their lives.
Knowing this information about trauma, racial traumas, and knowing the conditions of the society in which we live, I want to us turn our attention to thriving. “The art of thriving” explains the manner in which one chooses to push toward a life of optimal health, wellness, and one that exceeds beyond merely surviving. While we may not always have control over the systemic or external conditions that surround us, we do have control over the following:
"The Art of Thriving"
Live in “what is…” not “what if.”
It’s important for us to learn to build our lives around what is, rather than what if. Many of us are notorious for living a life of what if- “What if this happens,” “What if that happens,” “What if this doesn’t work,” “What if this goes wrong.” The problem with what if is that it leads to infinite possibilities, most of which never happen. Entertaining multiple what ifs leave us feeling anxious, emotionally distressed, and can lead to depression, as we begin to feel hopeless about the future and out of control. Today, start to put more energy into what is happening right now. What is happening right here, right now, in this very moment? Practice living in the present moment, because every moment of life truly should be enjoyed in the present.
Celebrate the wins.
When we live in a world and society full of oppression, chaos or toxic energy, it’s very easy to notice the negative things happening. Sometimes it’s a lot easier to find the negative than the positive. So, where are the wins? Today, start to be intentional about finding the wins. Moments of peace, joy, laughter, etc. are not distractions. They are necessary to find and incorporate balance in our lives. We all need some wins and we need to get really good at finding them. Find your balance between happiness, joy, humor, and a healthy dose of awareness in what is happening in the world.
Feed and nourish yourself.
We must get into the habit of feeding and nourishing ourselves with holistic wellness and care, i.e. self-care. Our physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual selves need to be fed and well nourished. When we are well fed and nourished, we are then better able to sustain the stressors that come into our lives. It’s like a protective bubble or protective shield. When we are physically fit, emotionally healthy, have positive relationships, have good role models, when we feel good about our jobs, etc., negative things don’t impact us as much. Today, figure out in what ways you can begin (or continue) to feed and nourish yourself (this may help!).
Strengthen your sense of agency.
When you are marginalized or oppressed, you become accustomed to feeling like external factors have a very unfair, unjust and controlling influence on your life. Yes, there are many things that are out of our control and have the power to influence our life in negative ways. This compromises our ability to develop our own sense of agency- the belief in the choice and control we have in our lives. So, thriving comes with strengthening this sense of agency. We tend to have a stronger sense of well-being when we feel that we have control over our own lives. Today, find a way to take back your agency by noticing what you do have control over in this moment of your life. Tap into the choices you have or the moments where you can take control over your life. Steer the direction of your life in your favor. Don’t give away your agency to the ills of the world.
Live in accord with your values.
Whenever I have a client who is having trouble redirecting their life, I always encourage them to tap into their values. What do you value? What matters to you? What is important to you? What principles do you live by? How do you want to be remembered? What do you want your legacy to be? Our values are important because they guide our actions, influence our behaviors, drive our perceptions of the world, and have a lot of impact on the decisions we make. Today, figure out what it is that truly matters to you by getting to the core of what you value in this life.
Do what makes you come alive.
As Howard Thurman once said, “Do not ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go do that. Because what the world needs most is people who have come alive.” Instead of figuring out what you can do for the world, do what makes you come alive. Do the things that you are extremely passionate about, the things that bring you happiness and joy- because this is the very gift that you need to give to the world, society, and your community. This is what the world and those around you need to see so that they, too, will feel encouraged to come alive.
Read more about healing from trauma here…
If you enjoyed reading this, also listen to Ep. 3 “The Art of Thriving” and Ep. 17 “Should we watch videos of police brutality and Black death?” of ‘A Different Perspective’ Podcast.
Dr. Amber Thornton
Clinical psychologist with a passion for family, community, culture, and diversity.